31st March 2019
It’s hardly difficult to escape the fact that Mother’s Day is here. The supermarkets have been awash with flowers, gift boxes and chocolates over this last week; commercialism jumping on another marketing bandwagon.
But cynicism aside, I have enjoyed a more relaxed morning than usual, and a very agreeable breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, shared with …. well, one of my three daughters managed to make it (no cynicism intended).
Logging onto my Facebook account this morning, I was greeted with a myriad of posts depicting flowers, gifts and images of pleasantly presented breakfast treats, shared proudly by their grateful recipients.
Alongside these more upbeat posts were the more emotional, remembrance ones, from those expressing their love and gratitude for their lost mothers. I felt triggered, and remembered my own mother who I lost 3 years ago, then a pang of guilt, as I thought also of how I ought to be marking this day by visiting her grave with flowers.
More than anything, I am reminded, as a therapist, of the many difficult associations that can be attached to the subject of mothering. Loss and bereavement may be complicated if there has been a difficult relationship with one’s mother.
Estrangement from one’s family can cause deep feelings of unresolved grief. Childhood trauma and abuse from those who were supposed to care for us can have a lasting effect, and be at the root of many symptoms of depression and anxiety in later life. Difficulties in conceiving can cause intense worry, and place great strain on a relationship.
Childlessness may be a choice for some women, but for others, where it wasn’t a choice, there can be a sense of emptiness, failure and even despair, perhaps calling into question the purpose of one’s own life. Loss of a child, no matter at what age, whether through miscarriage, still-birth, illness, accident or suicide, changes parents’ lives for ever.
I have known churches that have attempted to circumvent this potentially painful time, ensuring that all females receive a posy of daffodils sensitively presented by the children in the congregation, but I also believe that covering up painful emotions is not always helpful, either.
If you find you are experiencing difficult feelings around today, I encourage you to be gentle on yourself. And if you believe you are experiencing more significant levels of distress, talking through difficult feelings with a trained therapist can help to gain a greater understanding of your pain, and may be the first step you take towards a pathway of self-reconciliation.
9th April 2019
Exam Time Anxiety
Outside in the parks the trees are bursting with pink blossom; the days are getting longer; and the birds are getting earlier with their dawn serenade. It could feel like nature is seducing you into a false sense of post-exam summer.
On campus, things have gone eerily quiet, but the silent study areas of the library are crammed with keen students tapping at keyboards, crunching crisps; swigging from cans anything to keep them awake. The stark absence of friends to hang out with is a reminder that the nights at the Students’ Union have been replaced with burning the midnight oil. Exam season is with us again.
Whether you are a student at university, in the sixth form, preparing for GCSE’s, or in Y6 preparing for SAT’s, there is one thing for certain, you are likely to be feeling the pressure.
Perhaps you are experiencing:
feelings of overwhelm
a fear of not coping
fear of failure
worry and anxiety
You may be able to add to this list. These feelings are real, and can be symptoms of anxiety.
It is important to remind yourself of is who it is you are doing these exams for. Quite often we are so swept up, that we can forget why we are doing exams in the first place.
Now might be the time to remind yourself (and others) that these are your exams – and you might need to gently let others know that as well!
Well-meaning parents can be a bit dim when it comes to understanding basic boundaries (I know this, because I am one!) and may unwittingly be adding to your feelings of stress by questioning your work regime, for example.
Remember, you are the best person to know what works best for you. Trust yourself.
In the meantime, do whatever you can to exercise good self-care:
take regular breaks
meet with a friend for coffee and a chat
have a night off
try and get some fresh air
make a list of your favourite treats for times when you most need them
Hopefully, this should help you to gain a greater sense of control, and get you through your exams in one piece, knowing that the pressure will pass, along with the exams.
If anything in this article has resonated with you and you would like to have a chat to see how I can help, please get in touch
16th April 2019
Let Go of What You Can’t Control
‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference’ (Reinhold Niebuhr)
As a child, I remember believing if I could somehow manage to walk the road to school without stepping on the cracks in the paving stones, the day would go well. I’m not sure whether that was me trying to have some control over the unknown, or whether I was trying to abdicate control to a greater power, but either way, I imagine it came from a place of fear, or uncertainty.
As I puzzle on ‘fear of the unknown’, I am reminded of the words of Benjamin Franklin:
‘In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’ (1789).
With that in mind, I wonder why it might be that control is so difficult to relinquish?
Let’s take a look at some of the feelings that we may have experienced at times in our lives when frightening things happened which were out of our control:
loss of appetite
Looking at this quite hefty list, it would seem to make sense that we might want to avoid being reminded of the difficult and traumatic times that brought us to feel this way. Is this possibly where our desire to keep control comes from?
Whilst it would be totally unrealistic to expect to sail through life avoiding adversity, it seems some of us are able to live more care-freely, whilst others of us want to keep tighter reins on all that we can!
What makes us more or less inclined to want to try and keep control can be a combination of past and difficult life events, as well as our learned abilities to manage our emotions.
Whilst, as Franklin states, there is much in life which may be out of our control, I believe it is important to understand that there are things which we do have control over. Let’s take a look at some of these things:
Things I can control:
Doing my homework
The friends I choose to have
How I spend my free time
Asking for help
Studying for tests
How I respond to others
Doing my jobs
How I respond to challenges
Taking care of myself
Things I can’t control:
Someone else’s decisions
How others treat me
Others taking care of themselves
Others being kind
Who loves me
Who likes me
Others apologising to me
Others asking for help
Others forgiving me
Others being honest
Someone else’s efforts
If we want to try and embrace a more carefree life, perhaps we could try and let go of the things which are outside of our control. In doing so, we could strive to live more in the present moment; not worrying about stepping on those paving cracks; accepting ourselves, and others, as we are.
‘People are just as wonderful as sunsets if you let them be. When I look at a sunset, I don’t find myself saying, ”Soften the orange a bit on the right hand corner.” I don’t try to control a sunset. I watch with awe as it unfolds.’ (Carl Rogers)
If anything in this article has left you wanting to explore things further, please feel free to get in touch.
20th April 2019
Escape the Stress Trap
Since April is National Stress Awareness Month, it feels like an appropriate time to take a look at how we are all susceptible to getting caught up in the stress trap, and have a look at some ways we might stop this happening before it’s too late.
And if you’re reading this thinking, ‘it’s already too late!’, what steps can you take to reclaim your life?
I think stress is one of those things that has a habit of creeping up on us when we are least expecting it. One minute it can feel like we are happily going along, filling our work and social lives with all the things we enjoy doing most, and wham, before we know it, we are experiencing burn-out.
What does ‘burn-out’ feel like?:
- not being able to get to sleep at night because your thoughts are racing
- having disturbed sleep, including nightmares.
- feeling guilty that you are letting people down if you can’t keep to an arrangement
- feeling cross with yourself for not being ‘stronger’ and more able to manage all the things you’d planned
- feeling confused – after all isn’t yoga/ the gym/ meeting up with friends / going on a night out, etc supposed to be relaxing?
- worried about letting others down – friends, colleagues, your boss, your partner – they need you after all.
- feeling panicky about stress affecting your physical or mental health, especially if you have experienced burn-out in the past.
- physical symptoms – such as headaches, heart palpitations, nausea, muscle tension, loss of appetite or comfort eating.
- exhaustion, not being able to get up in the mornings and feeling constantly tired, even after rest and breaks.
Sometimes it is only when we start experiencing symptoms of burn-out, that we realise we have to do something about it, but unfortunately, recognising the symptoms for what they are can be confusing.
Because of the high expectations we can have of ourselves, we might be less likely to attribute our symptoms of burnout to our life-style.
Some suggestions for becoming ‘stress aware’:
- Next time you feel badly under pressure, try setting a timer for ten of minutes and write down all you are feeling at that time, without worrying about spellings and grammar (no one is going to read it!). You could include all your emotional feelings as well as any physical symptoms you are experiencing. Try and write as freely as you can and without stopping to think.
- Write a list (I like lists!) of all the ‘demands’ that you are aware of having. Try not to judge these ‘demands’. (Sometimes, even taking a shower or making a cup of tea can feel too much).
- Looking at that list, which of the ‘demands’ do you have least choice over (these could include doing homework, attending college or work, caring for young children, etc).
- And now comes the more tricky task of deciding which ones you have most choice over. It’s here where you are likely to experience feelings of ‘I can’t let my friends down’, ‘the yoga classes are an important part of helping me to relax’, ‘I love my job, and I feel like I have to put in extra hours, even though my boss tells me I don’t have to’. I am sure you can add to these dilemmas!
- Now have a think about the last time you had some time totally to yourself, with no activities planned. What did you do – watch some trashy telly, read a book, newspaper, magazine, listen to music, have a long bath? How did you feel at that time? The chances are you relished that space.
- How much of your week do you actually have time totally to yourself? Do you feel like this is enough?
When we are in the middle of burn-out, especially if we are experiencing difficult symptoms and feelings, it is only natural that we want to find ways of stopping them.
You might recognise some of the following coping strategies in yourself:
- having an extra glass of wine to block out unwanted feelings
- rewarding yourself with junk food, or over-eating
- punishing yourself by depriving yourself of food
- ‘beating yourself up’, and telling yourself you should be able to cope with all you are doing, after all, everyone else is.
- zoning out, perhaps having too much screen-time, as a way of avoiding what needs to be done
If any of this is sounding familiar, learning to recognise when you are starting to feel the pressure, before it all starts to feel ‘too much’, is very important.
Once you are able to recognise you are doing too much, it is time to put some strategies in place!
- Be prepared to put into action standard self-care practice, e.g.. fresh air and moderate exercise, healthy eating, regular bedtimes, cutting down on caffeine.
- Practice Mindfulness. Here are several useful APPS, some of which are free: –Headspace; Calm; Calm-Harm; Chill Panda; ESC student; STOPP; Dare; PanicShield; Lite; Catch It; Pacifica.
- Try factoring more ‘me’ time into your daily and weekly schedule. If this feels difficult, start slowly and build it up.
- Recognise when you are comparing yourself to others, and remember you are a unique being; what is right for someone else may not work well for you.
- Listen to your symptoms. This one is really important – our emotions work as data sources for our lives. We are the masters of ourselves, a ‘negative’ emotion is our cue to act.
- Take a brutal look at the list you made earlier and see where you can make some changes and cut down on some of the demands in your life,
- Try and start work an hour later and finish an hour earlier if this is possible.
- Recognise when you feel guilty for saying no to someone, and tell yourself it’s ok to feel guilty, but you have a choice whether or not to allow it to affect your actions.
- If you feel under pressure for a deadline, speak to someone about how you feel. Remember universities will allow you extensions for extenuating circumstances, but if you don’t make contact, they have no way of finding out you are struggling.
- Remember, there is no shame in admitting you are struggling; on the contrary, it takes a lot of courage to speak out.
- And if you think you have to carry on and ‘be strong’ because others need you, remember the ‘oxygen mask on the aeroplane’ instructions: we need to make sure our own mask is in place, before we can assist others!
Hopefully, following some of these tips will start to help you to feel more in control of your stress-levels, and when you start to feel some positive benefits from the changes you make, it will inspire you to carry on and make further positive changes, as and when you need to.
If you are experiencing a lot of distress, it might be an idea to make an appointment with your GP. And remember, talking to a therapist will give you a chance to explore things more deeply and can be an important step towards living a more stress-free life. Please get in touch if you want to chat about this further:
27th April 2019
Parenting is a minefield generally, but our children hitting those adolescent years can add a whole new dimension to the meaning of extreme confusion! I can remember wondering why the successful guidebook to that phase didn’t exist.
The truth is, and my bookshelves will testify to this, there are zillions of helpful guides out there; but they all seem to provide conflicting advice!
Do I adopt a no-nonsense strict reign, with severe consequences for deviations; or does the answer lie in a more laissez-faire, non-interventional approach? And if you’re anything like me, you will have swung from one extreme to the other, doubting your own competence at every turn, and at worst, feeling like a complete failure!
But stop there. Find a quiet spot to sit down with a cup of tea, and believe me when I tell you, you are not a failure.
Let’s turn this issue away from you, and take a look at the bigger picture, where we might gain a greater understanding of what is happening when our little darlings decide we are no longer the centres of their universe and lose all ability to even engage, as Harry Enfield aptly depicted in his caricature of Kevin the Teenager.
Getting inside the head of a teen
Adolescence is roughly the period of time which spans from the ages of 11-18 (with wide variations, I hasten to add!). If we can try and understand the purpose of this phase of development, we may begin to see that it is an essential rite of passage all children have to go through, on their road to becoming an adult.
The PURPOSE of Adolescence is to acquire a PERSONAL IDENTITY
- So a person knows who they are in the world
- To give their life meaning and direction, through commitment, values and goals
- To provide a sense of free will and personal control
- To allow for consistency, coherence and harmony between their values, beliefs and commitments
- To be able to recognise their potential and a sense of their future possibilities and alternative choices
The main goal of an adolescent, is to go from being a dependent child, to an independent adult, defined according to who they are as a person, learned by their own unique valuing system designed to allow them to flourish in the world.
This might explain why adolescents are desperate to separate themselves from their parents, through their dress, their choice in music, their friends, etc.
Already, we can begin to see the areas of potential conflict. After all, don’t we as parents know what is best for our own children?
As parents, we need to try and lessen the areas of conflict by backing-off, and allowing teenagers the space to find their own identities.
Very well-meaning parents want their children to be happy, successful and make good life-choices. But, the conflict comes from us believing we as parents, know how to make that happen, when in fact, everyone of us is born programmed to knowing how to make it happen for ourselves!
Well, it all sounds like it could make sense, but I hear you asking, how?
How do you enable your child to be an INDIVIDUAL, when so much could go wrong?
What does your role as a parent look like in the teenage years?
And how do you provide support and help when your teens are unhappy or in trouble?
7 Tips for parenting teens
- Teens are notoriously bad communicators, but we need to remember, communication is two way – Hold off the Spanish Inquisition; ironically it is the quickest way to shut down communication!
- Become an expert at listening. Really listening means not interrupting, but listening to understand. Sometimes we can ‘listen’ to body language, even when there are no words. Being listened to helps us all to feel understood and valued
- Try not to pass judgement. None of us like to feel criticised. It can make us defensive and more likely to rebel – remember, your teen is desperately trying to discover his own identity – he needs support, not criticism.
- Decide on what your rules are and make them few. Natural consequences always work better than punishment or blackmail. When your child gets in trouble at school for not handing her homework in because she was up all night on her laptop, her consequence will be with the school and not you.
- Empathise with her anger/frustration, but don’t feel you have to fix it for your teen. Feelings are what make us human!
- Aside from keeping your teen safe, as far as is possible, ‘butt out’ of her life.
- Focusing on your own life, will help keep you sane!
Clearly, there will be times when parenting teens can bring greater concerns for which you will need outside support. Do not be afraid to seek help, and remember, things can and will get better!
If anything in this article has resonated with you, either as a parent or a young person, and you would like to have a chat about how I can help, please get in touch.